Category Archives: My teaching space!

Confessions of a novice academic!

My Teaching Philosophy

As mentioned previously, I need to complete a teaching portfolio over my year as a lecturing intern as part of the PTIS scheme.  Central to this portfolio is a personal teaching philosophy, detailing why teaching is important to me, what my objectives are as a teacher, what methods I will use to achieve my objectives, and how I will assess if I am successful in achieving those objectives.  We had to submit a preliminary Teaching Philosophy as part of the course, you I thought I would post mine for you all to be enthralled with!  A bit on the formal side, but enjoy:

Why is teaching important to me?
Teaching is important to me, as it is an avenue that allows me to pass on knowledge to the next generation of scientists. This knowledge transfer is central to the continuation of science of a whole, and is crucial to the effective stewardship of our environment as we move forward in a changing world. As such, my teaching is grounded in the fundamentals of science. When I am disheartened during my teaching, I would like to believe that I would try to bring my teaching back to the basic principles of preparing students for a scientific career. I would like to feel that my teaching would in some way create a positive difference in the world, especially in regards to effective and responsible stewardship of our environment.
What are my objectives as a teacher?
I strive to engage with students, making them care deeply about the subject matter. I also hope to inspire my students, and raise interest in areas that they were not previously interested in. I also aim to challenge student’s previous concepts and notions through learning that is primarily aimed at ‘problem-solving’ instead of just knowledge retention. I believe this will prepare them for their future careers most effectively. A focus on building independent skills like problem solving and scientific writing in order to allow them to transfer what they learn in the classroom out into the ‘real world’ where they will then be ready to make a difference. As such, I hope to eventually leave an ‘academic footprint’ where my teaching has led to numerous students making a difference in a number of different fields. Finally, I want my students to develop a sense of responsibility towards protection of the environment and understand their responsibility as scientists to interact with other scientists and the general public.

What methods do I use to achieve my objectives?
I strive to ensure that my methods of teaching are all based around a central concept of keeping students engaged at all times with the subject matter, whether completing assessments, attending lectures, or being out on fieldtrips. Specifically, I am interested in getting students to be more accountable for the work they produce, as this will form the basis of their future careers in science. At the moment, I am exploring options for displaying student projects on the internet as part of a blog, freely available for all interested parties to access. I believe this will give the students a sense of ownership over their project, as they will feel the work they are producing is influencing public opinion, instead of merely sitting in a lecturer’s desk after being marked, never to be looked at again.

How do I measure my effectiveness in achieving my objectives?
I have yet to formally assess my effectiveness in achieving my objectives, but I believe this will be done in a variety of forms, from informal to formal methods. Throughout my teaching, I will be continuously adapting based on what I believe is working and not working on the time, mainly decided through the responses of the students as a collective group. This will also include verbal/written feedback received from students both before and after the lectures. I will also assess whether or not my objectives are met after marking student assessments related to my aspect of the unit. I already have a set of criteria that I hope the students will be able to address in some of their larger projects – whether or not these objectives are addressed will be at least partly shown in the quality of the students’ assessments. Peer feedback will also play a significant role in measuring my effectiveness as a teacher. Before each lecture/tutorial that will be peer-reviewed, I will be submitting my teaching plan to the attending reviewer, which will include a detailed summary of what I hope the students take away from the lesson. In doing so, the reviewer will be able to provide feedback detailing if I was effective in meeting those objectives. Finally, more formal measures like SPOT surveys will be used to determine the extent to which these objectives have been met. However, this will be more for long term development, as they will be received after my teaching is completed.

Cottesloe Fish Habitat Protection Area

Today I am teaching my first tutorial in the second year unit ‘Marine Systems‘, which will introduce students to their major project, which is centred around a field trip to the Cottelsoe Fish Habitat Protection Area (CFHPA).  I’m pretty excited to introduce a few of my new ideas into the class this year, that will hopefully increase student motivation.  So I thought this would be a perfect time to write an introductory post about the CFHPA and the project I want the students to complete!  Enjoy!

The Cottesloe Fish Habitat Protection Area
Cottesloe Beach is one of Perth’s landmarks, well known and much loved amongst locals and tourists alike.  What many people don’t realise is that there is more to Cottesloe Beach than white sands and beautiful sunsets.  Cottesloe Reef sits just offshore Cottesloe Beach, and is home to a thriving coastal ecosystem with an abundant and biodiverse set of flora and fauna. For example, diverse seagrass and algae populations allow for the presence of the Weedy Seadragon, and many species of fin-fish are also present on the Reef.  All in all, a really dynamic ecosystem!  What makes the ecosystem at Cottesloe Reef extra special is the proximity to Perth itself – very rarely does a major city have a flourishing and unique ecosystem so close to it.  However, this proximity to Perth also places Cottesloe Reef at an increased vulnerability of negative anthropogenic influences such as overfishing, wastewater discharge and damage from boat-related activity.

As a result of the combination of high social importance and elevated vulnerability to human disturbances, much of Cottesloe Reef was declared a Fish Habitat Protection Area in 2001, with a principle aim of preserving aquatic biodiversity in the area.  To achieve this, many potentially damaging activities like jetskiing, spearfishing and anchoring were prohibited in the area.  The original plan that implemented the CFHPA underlined the fact that community involvement would be central to the success of the CFHPA in maintaining biodiversity.  This has been underlined by groups such as Cottesloe Coastcare Association being highly involved with raising public awareness about the protection of the Reef.  They even helped to get the Weedy Seadragon listed as a protected species in 2011 (and were even endorsed by a certain Sir David Attenborough!)!  Pretty cool to see the difference that can be made through hard work and a passion for our oceans….

The Cottesloe Ecosystem Research Project
Since 2007, undergraduate students from The University of Western Australia have conducted an annual field trip to study different components of the Cottesloe Reef Ecosystem as part of the “Marine Systems” (previously Intro to Marine Science) unit.  Students are usually split into several groups that all study one component of the ecosystem.  Students either focus on:

  • the benthic primary producers (seagrasses and macro-algae)
  • the invertebrate community (everything from nudibranches to anemones)
  • the fish community (including the Weedy Seadragon and Port Jackson Sharks)

Students then collate their data and write up a report detailing the distribution of flora/fauna across the Cottesloe Reef ecosystem.  This has essentially resulted in a series of reports benchmarking the type of organisms present in the area.  However, the really exciting thing we will be doing this year is to give the students access to all the data from previous years, creating a central Google Docs folder that the students can edit all data from.  This allows some really cool ecological questions to be asked, that have a temporal nature to them (i.e. how is the Cottesloe Reef Ecosystem changing over time!).  This project is really driven by the students, and they are completely free to investigate any question of their choosing, but I am hoping to see varied topics that include students thinking about the impact of environmental events (e.g. the ‘marine heatwave of summer 2010/11) or linkages between different sets of organisms over time (e.g. is there consistent links between primary producers and fish species that may suggest habitat dependency).  Hopefully the students will also get a feel for some of the difficulties associated with sharing data with different people over time.

Seagrass and benthic invertebrates

Students may investigate linkages between seagrasses and invetebrate communities

Obviously with limited resources and the students having many other commitments, really deep ecological questions linking cause and effect aren’t really possible,  but the students should still be able to pick apart some really cool patterns from the data!  As part of the assessment the students will not only write up a scientific report, but also a short press release to go along with the report, all of which will be posted on this website. This will hopefully spark some public interest (seeing as how Cottesloe is much loved in Perth!), and may even go a long way to influencing decision making in the area.  Most of all, hopefully the students will be very engaged, and feel as if they are doing real science instead of just ticking another box needed for getting their degree!

Reflections of a postgrad lecturer-in-training: Part 1

In a previous post, I mentioned that I was beginning a stint as postgraduate teaching intern at UWA, and that part of the internship involved keeping a reflective journal.  So I’ve decided that instead of merely writing down my thoughts (and possibly becoming lazy about it as the year goes on) I will share my journal on this blog!  To my mind this has numerous advantages, including transparency (including the students I teach), holding myself to accountability and killing two birds with one stone!
Part 1 will be about my thoughts on the first two days of the professional development part of the course, but before this I think it would be worthwhile to discuss what this academic journal will be about (after all, I will be adding to it consistently over the next year, and you all need to know where to pull my up on from time to time!).

The scope of the reflective journal
This reflective journal is NOT meant to be a simple description of my teaching methods and experiences. Instead, I should aim to make this journal a place for honest and critical evaluation of my teaching and learning experiences, with space for reflectance on how I may make changes in similar situations in the future. In addition, the journal should display facets of my teaching philosophy, and is a place to discuss my preconceived ideas on teaching, and how the change during the course of the year.

My pre-conceived notions
As I said in a previous post, I already have goals that I have set myself that I believe I can reach over the next year.  In short, the theme of these goals are centred around motivating students and instilling them with a passion about the environment around them.  I believe I can do this by conveying my passion to the students at all times, and by using technology to allow them to become more interactive with the subject matter in all aspects of the course: from lectures, to tutorials, to assessments. So now that we are all on the same page, let’s start looking at what I have learnt during the first couple of days!

Professional Development days 1 and 2 – The value of a key strategy

Day 1 started by giving us a real foundation in the theory and philosophy of teaching and the learning process.  There was constant reference to the importance of a cycle involving planning, acting and reflecting on our teaching, which I hope this journal will fit in nicely to!  Another aspect that really stuck with me was the difference between an instructivist and constructivist approach to teaching,  I really see myself as wanting to take a constructivist approach to teaching i.e. helping students to reach answers and solve problems on their own through active engagement, instead of the traditional knowledge transmission that only leads to rote learning and not proper understanding.  In addition, the idea of motivating students also came to the forefront during the first day, with repetition of the formula M(motivation of student) = V (value of outcome/process) x E (expectation of success).  I love the idea of keeping this in mind when designing lectures and assignments, and I really feel like this fits in well with my idea of designing an assignment that will be later put into the public domain.  I really hope an assignment like this will be highly valued by the students, hopefully increasing their overall motivation and the final quality of the assignments!

Given the nature of the subject discussed in the first day (based on teaching philosophies), I was slightly concerned that there was too much focus on our thoughts and feelings about teaching instead of actual strategies about how to make lectures and tutorials more interactive.  I thought there was slightly too much emphasise on this side of the development course.  However, more strategies were provided during day 2, dealing in both large and small classes.  Whilst these strategies were undoubtedly useful, I felt that there was not enough focus and discussion around them.  On the plus side, I have a stack of reading on strategies that could increase interactions in both small and large classes.  In addition, I found out about a new resource called Poll Everywhere that I really hope to use during my upcoming lectures.  Basically, I design questions before the beginning of a lecture (they could be to check students understanding, prior knowledge etc.) and work it into my powerpoint at a specific point of the lecture.  I then ask the students the question during the lecture, and they can answer the questions using their computers or mobile phones.  Within a matter of seconds, the class results are shown on the powerpoint, and we can start a debate, go over key concepts again or just chat about the results as a class!  I really feel this will help students to stay engaged without the fear of giving wrong answers in front of 70-80 of their classmates.  Students also struggle to keep taking information in after about 15 minutes of a lecture without a change of pace, so I feel that proper timing of the questions during my lectures may help students to retain more of the take-home messages in my lectures.

I admit that I already have fairly deep set views as to how I can further the learning process for the students that I will be teaching.  As a result, I found myself really agreeing with certain suggestions at some points during the first two days, and questioning the effectiveness of other suggestions elsewhere.  Not that I think this is a bad thing though; all teachers teach differently, and a one-size-fits all approach definitely does not apply in this situation.  Instead, I see the professional development component as supplying us with a diverse set of tools (some generic, some specialist), which we will pick and choose from based on a wide range of factors such as background, class sizes, teaching subject and (probably most importantly) personal preferences and experiences!

Quick wrap-up of day 3 of the professional development course to follow soon!

A first step into the unknown world of academia…….

At the beginning of this blog I did promise to include some writings that would at least be semi-useful (hopefully!) to future students hoping to move into a career in marine science; so here it goes!

From today I am beginning a year long Postgraduate Teaching Internship at UWA.  I was lucky enough to be accepted into the course last year, and with teaching semester 1 just around the conference the professional development aspect of the course will begin soon!  One of the pre-requisities for the course is keeping a reflective journal of my experiences (good and bad!) during the year…so why not just do this on my blog!  At least it’ll keep me honest about whether or not I’m meeting the original goals I set myself at the beginning of the internship, it’ll be interesting to see how my approach to teaching changes over this time and who knows, someone may even find it useful to read through!

The real purpose of this internship is to give some formal training to PhD students who are potentially interested in entering into academia at a later stage in their careers.  Most lecturers (or at least many that I have spoken to) never received formal training, and instead had to ‘learn on the job’, gaining the good and bad habits of other faculty members around them and bringing teaching strategies learnt from their own time as a student.  The professional development aspect of the course aims to teach us some of the main principles about teaching, that could be useful in any subject (from art to physics to marine ecology!).

I will be teaching in two units this year: “Marine Systems” (an introductory marine science unit for 2nd years) in 1st semester and “Ecological Processes” (a 3rd year unit focussing on both terrestrial and marine ecosystems).  For me, there are some broad goals I hope to achieve during this time:

Engaging the students with more relevant assignments: Back when I was an undergraduate, I remember working on many assignments, but not feeling a great deal of pride or love for the final product.  Instead, it felt like more of a ‘box ticking’ exercise needed to pass the course, with the work produced looked at once by the marker and then cast aside forever.  Given the huge amount of time that goes into some of these undergraduate projects (e.g. 100 students putting 5 hours into a project is 500 hours worked!), this seems like a huge waste to me!  Why not get the students to produce something with the aim of it being in the public domain, availabile for anyone else to read, something that they take a great deal of pride in?  I have a few ideas about how to work this into the existing course structure (many of which involve the use of social media), so this will be one of the main points I bring up during my training!

Instil passion for ecology and marine conservation into students:
I love what I do, and possess a strong passion for both ecology as a science and the conservation of the marine environment.  I try to get this passion across to audiences in every single presentation that I give, as I feel people are most engaged with my research when I am excited to tell them about it.  Since this approach has served me well in the past, I hope to use it again when teaching the students.  It might be a bit lofty to imagine that I will give them an inspirational lecture that they will remember for the rest of their lives, but if I could at least engage them, challenge their views of science, and get them discussing (however briefly) concepts I have raised over a cup of coffee or a pint of beer after class then I’ll feel pretty good about it all!  And if I can see the students getting genuinely excited during my teaching, then all the better!

Make some long term changes to the teaching of marine science units at UWA
The internship itself only runs for one year, but I really hope that some of the changes that I make in this time last significantly longer than this.  Yes, not everything I attempt will work, and yes, I’m not going to revolutionise university teaching in a year, but if I can make some significant, lasting changes to one aspect of the way both units are taught then I think the internship will have been fairly successful.

Most of all….have fun!!!
Of course it is a serious project to undertake, but this internship will allow me to communicate with like-minded people for a significant amount of time over the next year, discussing exciting research, future directions of ecology, and how this is important for humanity as a whole! I believe that it is the responsibility of researchers such as myself to pass on the knowledge and skills that will allow future marine scientists to develop….but this doesn’t mean we can’t have lots of fun while we do it!!!

One pre-requisite of the internship is to keep a reflective teaching journal, so I may try to incorporate this (or at least some of it) onto this blog to keep everyone up to date with how it is going!  As for now….I’m off to start reading through some of the effective teaching texts I’ve been given!!!  If anyone has any advice for this aspiring lecturer, feel free to leave some comments!